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New ventures August 30, 2015

Posted by IaninSheffield in PhD, Twitter.
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flickr photo by colinjcampbell http://flickr.com/photos/cjc/3577600379 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

It was a strange feeling as I left school for the last time on Friday. Not sad at all; I’m moving on to something I’ve been keen to do for a while. Not with any sense of pleasure either though; I enjoyed my time both as ICT Development Manager and Head of eLearning at Sheffield High School, made some good friends and helped see through some substantial changes. Strange instead because the school was quiet, as it invariably is with staff and students on hols. There was no hullabaloo, no fanfare; thanks had largely been exchanged at the end of summer term (Some people had been really kind in expressing their gratitude for the help and advice I’d afforded them; very touching). So I finished my day’s work, handed in my laptop and ID card, said cheerio to a couple of people and left. Simple. Quiet. Bit like me really.

I’m minded to look back at the technology in the school when I was appointed at the start of 2005 and to consider some of the changes we embraced to exploit some of the affordances new technologies offered. But hey, if you too were in schools during that time, you’ll already be well aware. If not, by all means have a wander through the six year back catalogue of posts here which reflect on many of the issues we faced. I read a comment or quote recently which said something along the lines of ‘There’s no point looking over your shoulder at the past; you can’t go there.’ Whilst history scholars might baulk at that, I have to confess to subscribing to that view and prefer to look forward. I certainly reflect on and endeavour to learn from what has passed, but I’m energised more by a sense of agency and ability to effect what is to come.

So what is ‘to come?’ I’ve secured a studentship to undertake a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University, full-time, within which I’ll be researching teachers’ use of social media to support their professional learning. I was struck some while ago by the number of people on Twitter claiming how potent it was in addressing their professional developments needs. Could that be true? Each time I hear the sentiment repeated, I wonder how a 140 character medium can possibly do that, yet am well aware of the positive effect it has had on my learning. I intend then to tease apart the issues involved, establish significant factors and shed more light on if and how this is being achieved. There’s little question that a good many people feel that their professional learning is enhanced by Twitter and other social media; what I’m keen to find out is how.

This blog has always been a place to reflect on issues related the use of learning technologies in schools; I hope to continue to do that. I do however need a new place which focuses solely on my new area of interest, so to that end I’ve set up ‘Marginal Notes‘ where I’ll be reflecting on my research endeavours. I need to provide a little more background in order to set the context from which my research arose, but I’ve found the need to begin documenting my studies, even though officially, I’ve not yet begun. If you have any observations or comments, do please share them.

So the next three years of my life are in some ways mapped out, and yet I know I’ll be exploring (for me) completely new ground. ‘The way less trod’ has always appealed.

Definitely HandsOn … December 2, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, research.
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hands on

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Building Unity 1000 Families: http://flickr.com/photos/buildingunity/303497031

This post might go some way towards explaining why (once again!) posts have lost their regularity recently. For the last five weeks I’ve been participating in the 3rd edition of the HandsOnICT MOOC and it’s rather sucked up my time. I’m not a ‘serial MOOC dropout‘ who visits to get a flavour of the content, the practice or the community; if the topic being covered will address a need for me, then I’m in and will do my utmost to see it through. And so it proved with HandsOn – Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities (DS4ICTL); I committed to the full five weeks … and full-on it proved!

This was no gentle stroll through a few interesting creative exercises or discursive mental conundrums. No watching a few talking heads, then answering a few auto-marked questions or writing a reflective post or two. DS4ICTL is delivered through a Moodle implementation, (supported by ILDE) consists of five modules of study, each with several activities including peer mentoring, facilitated by a group of experienced online tutors, in seven language streams and using Open Badges to credential the learning. Phew! I was attracted to learning about the design-based approach when creating online/elearning activities. There seemed to be plenty in there that might prove both fresh and useful in supporting me in my role in school. Additionally I’d be working on a project I needed to undertake as part of my work schedule. Good authentic, grounded learning then.

During the first week, the activities sought to familiarise us with the work environments, discussion and reflection areas and introduce us to our peers. Then over subsequent weeks we chose a project, explored the context within which it would be developed and brought some of the principles of design into realising our resource. Many of these principles were new to me and required some degree of persistence to become more comfortable with them. Perhaps that’s what contributed to the time it required each week to work through the activities? I’d decided I was prepared to allow five-ish hours a week, but actually it often transpired to be more. This was a MOOC; there was no compunction for me to do that, but somehow this was different. It mattered. It felt … professional. (And I mean that in several ways)

Given the amount of time it required, one would hope I gained something from the experience and of that, I have no doubt:

  • It extended my learning – I became more familiar with how to use design principles in creating learning activities; about using personas, scenarios and prototyping; heuristic evaluation; andragogy and heutagogy.
  • It extended my personal learning network – despite the large numbers in the MOOC, there were fewer in the English language stream and only a handful who were clearly out to complete in the scheduled time. Since we were often exchanging views and ideas with the same people, it allowed a greater degree of familiarity than we might usually expect in a MOOC.
  • It developed my skills – we worked in several environments for different aspects of the course, thereby gaining a breadth, if not depth, of experience in new workspaces.

I was impressed by how quickly issues were resolved, either by the tutors who were clearly committed to the course, or by peers, who were clearly switched on. As a result, I now have the framework within which to build a resource I’ve been meaning to produce for some while. It’s sufficiently developed (and hopefully robustly designed!) and ready to deploy, so that colleagues will hopefully be enjoying the benefits in the very near future.

In addition to the demanding time commitment, there were other aspects of the course I found tough:

  • Maintaining station within the course timeline. I found that when I slipped slightly behind, despite the notion that participants could work at their own pace, I floundered. This was because I felt out of place; uncomfortable commenting on the posts of those further forward and less in touch with those following behind. Furthermore, committing to supporting and learning from those at the same point in the course with you meant you had less time to devote to those further back on the timeline; those who might in fact benefit from a little extra encouragement.
  • Peer mentoring. Commenting on people’s posts in discussions is fine; I’m used to that, but providing the formal feedback using a scoring rubric was much harder. Applying the rubrics were fine, but trying to offer supportive feedback when criteria hadn’t been met, especially when you’re dealing with fellow professionals who you don’t know, isn’t easy. There’s the temptation to be more lenient than perhaps we might with our students; after all it’s only a MOOC that someone’s taking part in out of interest. It’s hardly a high-stakes environment. On one shoulder I had the hard-nut angel that was my professional integrity and on the other the sweet angel who sees no value in upsetting someone for no reason. Who won? Well you’ll have ask those whose contributions I evaluated. I’d also add here the frustration I’d sometimes feel if an assessment had asked the learner to provide links to ‘a’ and ‘b,’ but the learner only provided ‘b’ with no explanation why ‘a’ was missing. Obviously there’s no compulsion to complete everything or even anything within the MOOC, but when a peer is relying on you being clear in order to fulfil their own obligations … well, like I said, frustrating.
  • Pitching responses appropriately. Linked with feedback I also found it harder than usual knowing how to pitch responses to people’s comments. When someone participates in a course in a language which is not their first, I have nothing but admiration, though that naturally demands more thought when responding to their contributions, so as not to offend. (Good experience and useful practice though, given the increasing number of students we’re welcoming from overseas).
  • Navigating the different environments. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cope with this, so much as finding it frustrating flipping from one back to the other … especially when the navigation didn’t ease those transfers (due to technical reasons arising caused by having to have different language streams). Although I managed, I suspect a MOOC novice, or someone less confident with online learning could find it rather overwhelming or intimidating.

In summary then, DS4ICTL proved to be a valuable experience; perhaps the most useful MOOC I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. It was well designed, well organised and well supported. All credit to the designers and facilitators; it must have been a mammoth undertaking. I’d suggest either reducing the content slightly, or spreading it out over an extra week, just to reduce the weekly demand. If the demographic of potential participants is those who are reasonably well along the digital literacy continuum, then it’s probably pitched well, but it’s a little too complex for novice learners I’d argue. If there was another HandsOn MOOC on a different topic, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up.

The badges earned through the course can be viewed here. As with all digital badges, they have metadata attached enabling a viewer to establish who the issuer was and under what circumstances. Might have been helpful if the learning outcomes for each award could also be listed and even some of the evidence? Most of the badges also transferred across to my Backpack.

How do we weigh an academic’s time? May 25, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Musings, Teaching Idea.
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A while ago Nick Jackson (@largerama) asked of Twitter ‘What is the most worthwhile use of an academic’s time? Lecture or tutorial?’ The answer’s obvious right? Well … maybe. Wherever an apparent truism appears, particularly one with which I’d tend to immediately agree, I always try to step back and ask of myself what the alternative viewpoint might be and might I argue that case? In playing devil’s advocate, I’m seeking to challenge my own understanding. Have I missed something? Was my initial interpretation too shallow?

To the question of the lecture then. As I begin to probe in the Twitter exchange Nick captured in his subsequent blog post, is it fair to take the lecture in isolation? It is after all one aspect of a more complex environment which includes the academic and the student, the location within which the lecture takes place, the curriculum, the organisation which brings all those together (and the budget within which it must operate) plus the less tangible, but perhaps most significant element, the intent or purpose of the interchange. So let’s imagine a university or college which has one hundred mechanical engineering students and wishes them to experience a ‘Stress Analysis’ module of study over a 12 week period. It can spare a lecturer at the rate of 1 hour per week over that time. So 100 students, 12 weeks, 12 hours of lecturer time to cover content X. On the grounds of efficiency or economics, the lecture argument is an easy one to make. If lectures were swapped for tutorials for example, the group size would need to be smaller and the lecturer’s time spread more thinly resulting in each student benefiting from perhaps only an hour of lecturer support in the whole module.

Nick makes the point in his post that time spent in lectures is to some extent wasted and as the video above shows, during carelessly constructed, monotonously delivered, poorly crafted lectures, student attention inevitably wanders. In addition Nick highlights the weak pedagogical principles upon which lectures are built, which inevitably lead to a lower quality of learning. Perhaps then the lecture in which the lecturer is the most active agent in the room struggles to encourage the ‘deep’ learning1 that academics would surely want to engender in their students? Säljö2 categorised five graded conceptions of learning:

  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or knowing a lot’
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by re-interpreting knowledge.

Would it be fair to say that (the majority of) lectures encourage 1 to 3, the ‘surface’ approaches, whereas say, tutorials lean more towards the deeper approaches found in 4 and 5? With that in mind, does the lecture really offer enough value to the students? Although Gunderman3 contends that lectures aren’t solely about transmitting information, they should:

…show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners.

But realistically, what proportion of lectures actually do that? Is it truly possible for a lecturer to bring their ‘A’ game to every lecture? Perhaps it would be more appropriate to allow lecturers to provide their own defence:

And now I’m even more convinced than ever. It’s easy to criticise without offering an alternative though, so let’s imagine more efficient or more effective possibilities other than the traditional lecture, but which make no more demands on lecturer time. Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the flipped classroom model in which a pre-recorded version of the lecture can be watched by the students, maybe even given by other lecturers. But where the gain in that I hear you say? With a pre-recorded lecture then student has the option to watch it at a time and place to suit them (perhaps more important than ever in these times where a good proportion of students take on a job to help pay for their fees), but more importantly at a pace to suit them. The twelve scheduled hours could then be used in any number of ways: tutorial, workshop, Q&A. Maybe students could be asked to ‘front’ these sessions with pecha-kucha presentations, TeachMeet– or Bar Camp-style sessions, anything where they’ve been required to interpret and transfer what they learned from the recorded lecture. And the academic? S/he decides the most appropriate format for each particular aspect of the curriculum; they act as facilitator, arbiter, coach and mentor. They do what they (should) do best and redirect student learning, helping them see misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Will that be easy? Of course not. For many academics it might require considerable personal and professional development, but with deeper learning resulting in more accomplished students as the intended outcomes, surely it’s worth the investment of time?

The lecture only ever enjoyed moderate success a mechanism for facilitating student learning and even then only under particular circumstances, but given the constraints within which it operated, other options were limited. Digital technologies have broken the shackles binding academics … will they now make the most of that freedom?

1 Marton, F. & Saljo, R., 1976. On qualitative differences in learning: I. Outcome and process. British journal of educational psychology.

2 Saljo, R., 1979. Learning in the Learner’s Perspective. I. Some Common-Sense Conceptions. No. 76.,

3 Gunderman, R., 2013. Is the Lecture Dead? The Atlantic. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/is-the-lecture-dead/272578/ [Accessed May 23, 2013].

Dusty, dank and dead …. or vibrant and alive? October 23, 2011

Posted by IaninSheffield in Musings, research.
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In a quick comment on OurExtendedStudies wiki, Catriona congratulated me on completing my dissertation and asked about ‘publishing’ which set me thinking.

I guess there are two kinds of publishing:

  1. formal, in academic journals and
  2. informal, making your research available to the world at large through the media which have become available through the WWW.
library shelves

cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Ron Wiecki: http://flickr.com/photos/rwphoto/3300437997/

Then there’s also (well OK, three kinds!) the bit inbetween. I don’t know about your course, but we’re required to have our dissertations bound, so they can be shelved in the University stacks. Never to see the light of day again? Oh, and it costs somewhere between £10 & £20 to have this done … for which we have to stump up the cost. Now remind me, what were our tuition fees for?

In addition my tutor wants another two copies, for which I also have to pay. So that’s about £50 to put my thoughts into print so they can spend their days languishing on bookshelves gathering dust.

Why in heavens name are we clinging on to the traditional notion of recording knowledge in this way? What are the odds of someone, some day pulling my work off the stacks and reading through it? What might they learn, agree with or contest? And more importantly, how will I know? And how will what they think feed back into developing and reshaping the knowledge I formulated?

So I also published my dissertation online using a Google site which cost nothing and brings with it several advantages:

  1. it’s easily amended so if I do spot any typos I or my tutor didn’t pick up, they’re easily corrected. Or indeed if any links change, I can update them.
  2. Links can be ‘live’ so a reader can jump straight in if an outbound reference takes their fancy.
  3. If anyone does visit the work, I’ll know from the site stats.
  4. If someone disagrees with what I proposed, can offer alternative explanations or observations or can suggest extensions to the ideas, then they’re easily able to do that through the comments … and I get the chance to reply! Dialogue. Constructivist learning even?

So OK, I guess I’m prepared to accept a printed copy on a library shelf, but why aren’t Universities also providing electronic repositories to celebrate and share the knowledge their students are developing? Another form of Open Access perhaps?

… or has it already begun? SHERPA and Virginia Tech are just two of the initiatives; hope we can look forward to more.